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Byline festival

RECURRING themes at this year's Byline Festival in August - billed as a festival of journalism "with a moral conscience" - were crime, corruption, misinformation, dark money and lies, lies, lies.

Alistair Morgan at Byline 2019

Alistair Morgan speaks at Byline 2019

In a session on true crime reporting, led by Dr Paul Lashmar of City, University of London, there was also an off-duty magistrate present who expressed shock at the "lack of reporters in my court... it's criminal."

Paul noted that Nick Davies and Carole Cadwalladr's revelations about phone hacking and dark money around the EU referendum haven't brought about the changes we would have hoped. But they've certainly inspired "a new generation of journalists" now arriving in journalism schools. Paul says there are some "extraordinarily good people coming in" to City's MA in investigative journalism. Such investigations have created "ripples... they inspire people." He also notes that ethics has become "bigger" in journalism courses.

The murder of Daniel Morgan - a private investigator killed with a blow from an axe in the dark, unlit car park of the Golden Lion pub in Sydenham 32 years ago - was the subject of a talk by his brother, Alistair Morgan, who became a journalist in an attempt to untangle the "dirty mess" of Daniel's death.

Five prosecutions and collapsed prosecutions later, a new inquiry is in its seventh year. But we're no closer to getting to the truth.

Within months of Daniel's death his company, Southern Investigations, began to be the go-to company for Fleet Street phone hacking. Some of the police officers involved in the Daniel Morgan case were also involved in the Stephen Lawrence affair.

Alistair concluded that just as organised crime has its contacts among corrupt police officers, so organised crime and corrupt police offices also cultivate contacts in the media. The "Leveson 2" inquiry would have looked into contacts between the media, elements of the police and criminality but this was cancelled by the Government early last year.

A sundog at Byline 2019

A sundog (parhelion) over Byline 2019, 22 degrees to the left of the sun. It's a type of halo caused by the refraction of sunlight by ice crystals in the atmosphere.

How can we save the BBC, asked festival co-instigator Peter Jukes, who moved to journalism from writing BBC dramas after a "career suicide note" in which he observed that 70 per cent of BBC drama output was at the time commissioned by one man.

The panel that included Peter concluded that while most BBC journalists are excellent, amd some show extraordinarily bravery in covering conflict zones, they are let down by "craven" management. They also concluded that the BBC charter's requirement for "balance" doesn't work any more: "you can't balance people who know stuff with people who don't know stuff," as is the case in "debates" on climate change and on Brexit.

One of many discussions on "the normalisation of lies in our culture" and "whether facts matter in our culture anymore," was led by Gavin Esler, author of Brexit without the Bullshit. The book's now in its second edition, its first having sold out in a week - after getting a negative review on Amazon before it was even published, from someone who couldn't possibly have read it.

Does anyone, asked Gavin, remember "Norway Plus"? What is the Plus? It could be any add-on to a Brexit promise that you wanted it to be. Of course, it turns out there is no Plus.

Gavin reminded the audience that 95 per cent of slaughterhouse vets are "other EU" nationals, as are a large proportion of abattoir staff.

He compared the "facts" most people had picked up going into the EU referendum with the 35-page explanatory booklet that was delivered to every home in Northern Ireland in the run-up to the referendum there on the Good Friday Agreement.

Byline co-instigator Stuart Cosgrave noted the rise of larger-than-life "characters" such as Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage - he of the endless Question Time appearances: "as a society, we want to create these people" who are seen as "colourful."

Analysing Trump lies has become an industry in the US: the Washington Post clocked 10,600 demonstrable lies by President Trump up to this June, 12 a day, including weekends. But there hasn't quite been the same forensic investigation of serial lying in recent UK politics. There's been a startling lack of interest in the Cambridge Analytica affair in the UK mainstream, certainly compared to several documentaries produced by German news outlets.

Compare today's serial liar politicians apparently getting away with it to the trouble President George Bush (Senior) got into after breaking his "Read my lips, no new taxes" promise back in 1988. President Clinton's second term was mostly about the fallout from lying when he said, "I did not have sex with that woman." But by 2016 former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, campaigning for Trump's nomination, could say of the fall in crime nationally that "there may be some liberal statistics about how crime is going down, but that not how people feel."

Then there's the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which people assess their cognitive ability as being greater than it really is. Basically, people with "measurable deficiencies" in their expertise repeatedly fail to recognise these deficiencies. As a result they make "error after error," while "tending to think that they are performing competently" when they are not, according to psychologist David Dunning's definition. This phenomenon may well help explain the strange politics of our times.

Security advice from Mark Spy Blog included this: "don't all switch your phones off at once" just before you go into your secret meeting. To security forces or industrial spies monitoring you, it screams "Secret meeting!" Switch off your phones on the way to the meeting. Security folk going by train to Cheltenham for meetings at GCHQ apparently have written instructions o start switching off their phones at Paddington Station.

Mark reckoned that if you were going to a secret meeting at Byline, in the heart of Sussex's Ashdown Forest - it inspired Winnie the Pooh - you'd need to turn your phone of at East Grinstead station before your location data becomes too distinctly rural. But does your phone ever really switch off, especially if it's an iPhone? He says about five layers of tin foil might stop it giving away your location.

Consider changing the PIN that opens your phone to one of more than four digits, because there are now robots on sale with realistic damp fingers, programmed to go through endless combinations, tapping them out in an attempt to get into your phone. Switch off your fingerprint identification settings when you cross a border too: it's too easy for a border guard to demand you open your phone with your fingerprint to prove it's not a bomb, then use this as an excuse to have a peek inside it anyway.

rapper Lowkey at Byline 2019

Rapper and self-described "Mesopotamian maniac" Lowkey performs

All this and Pussy Riot too, who unfortunately took so long to set up for their set that they pushed the programme past its strict 2pm bedtime, meaning some other acts couldn't play. Rapper Lowkey was also among acts, he got the audience to sing along, "Rap's not dead! It's at Byline!"